Writing 101: How to Write an Outline and First Lines

books, life-lessons, writing

Writing 101: How to Write an Outline and First Lines


An outline is one of the biggest troubles, and first lines are one of the biggest fears for writers. The former can be easily solved, and the latter can be easily overcome with just few tips.


An outline is trouble not because it demands skills or patience, but because writers ignore it. Such ignorance can lead you to a dead-end when half-way through you understand this is not the story you wanted to tell.

Writing an outline is easy. It is just a list of all the scenes in your book. When you go sailing, you make a route on a map. Sometimes your tracking system goes down, and compass and your route are the only things at your disposal. The outline is both — the compass and the route. It allows you to understand where you go and how you plan to get there. For me, an outline is also a great way of dealing with a writer’s block because when you know the story you are going to tell, you tell it.

Make a complete list of scenes

Different writers use different outlines and different degree of details in it. David Mamet writes five sentences; James Patterson writes many pages and even makes several versions of it. Everyone needs to find their own balance of details in an outline. Here is an example of an improvised outline in a way I do it (which is a less detailed version of James Patterson’s outlines):

Scene 1. Vincent meets Cat in a dark alley. He asks whether she brought him what he had asked her. She gives him a bag and asks: “When.” He replies: “Tomorrow.” Cat asks him to be careful, and Vincent leaves.
Scene 2. Vincent comes to his apartment. He calls travel agency and reserves a ticket for a morning flight to Argentina. He approaches his apartment’s door and sees that the lock is broken. He puts out a gun. The floor under his feet creaks slightly. Vincent is shot into the head through the door.
Scene 3. Cat stands near the body. Policemen ask neighbors whether they heard anything. James approaches Cat and asks whether or not she gave him the bag. She nodes. James suggests there was no bag when she arrived. She nodes. James says that now they are in a big trouble now.

And the list goes on and on until the final scene.

An outline is your story in a nutshell. If it’s is boring, then the story is boring. As we discussed in scenes setting fragment a structured story can turn you into a successful writer even if you lack style, so make sure you are completely satisfied with your outline. Get some feedback, edit it, make several versions of it. Making a good draft of the story at this stage can save you months of work. At the same time, an outline doesn’t mean you cannot change anything while writing, but it will still preserve the base of your story and your route.

Cut the outline

Cutting is something every successful author emphasizes because it’s both — vital and tough. As Dan Brown says:

“Give the readers just enough to tell a story.”

The shorter, the better, but the shorter, the harder. As we talked in scene-setting, cutting is something we hate doing. David Mamet told a great story on his master class about his friend Barbara Tolliver.

“She calls in the middle of every project and says: you are going to kill me.
I say, why?
She says, I got to tell you something.
I say, what?
She says you know scene 12?
I say, yeah scene 12, my favorite scene.
She says, yeah, I cut it out. The film is 1000% better for it.”

This short dialogue shows that even great writers sometimes struggle to cut scenes, especially after they wrote them. Cutting outline is much easier. At this stage you don’t have a big commitment, so you can answer this question objectively. After you wrote a scene you would find hundreds of reasons why you need it. You can refer to scenes setting fragment to read how to spot redundant scenes.

At the example above, can we cut the first scene? I think we can. We would need to emphasize the bag that Vincent have in scene 2. In scene 3, we read that Cat gave this bag to Vincent and it is missing now. If, however, Cat kissed Vincent in scene 1, it would be much harder to cut because it would show the relationships between characters that are hard to expose otherwise.

First lines

Many writers believe first lines are the most important one. I think you should write every chapter as if it is the first one with new intentions, obstacles, questions, and answers. By doing this, you can catch the reader and hold her till the last page.

Involve the reader into a dramatic scene fast

Your first lines can be anything you want if you:

  1. Involve the reader fast.
    State the intentions of the characters and raise questions at the same time. Don’t be fast to answer them.
  2. Create a dramatic scene
    How to create a dramatic scene? As we’ve discussed — use different senses, show, don’t tell.

Amount of time you have to grab the reader depends on what you are writing. If you write a book or a play, then you have some time before readers attention fades. If you write a screenplay, you need to do it fast.

In the example above, all the scenes are dramatic. In my opinion, scene 2 is the most dramatic, but mostly due to scene 1 (especially if Cat kisses Vincent in scene 1 and emphasizes the importance of the package). So maybe a good choice would be to write a short scene 1 and go straight to dynamic scene 2.

Forward the plot

An outline is bones of your book, but it doesn’t mean your story should start the same way as outline does (though it’s usually the case). If you don’t know how to start here is a tip. David Mamet suggests to “forward the story.” In other words, imagine that you skip the first 10 minutes of the movie or first 20 pages of the book. You get into the middle of the action, but you understand everything quite fast, and you are intrigued. “What the hell is going on?” You ask yourself and start paying attention to understand what just happened. In my opinion, Inception movie is one of the best examples of this concept. You start in the middle of the action and look closely not to miss a thing. Besides, it’s fun to write, and it involves the reader fast.

List of takeaways

Write, edit, and cut an outline before you write your book.

Make sure you need every scene in your outline.

Write every chapter if it is the first one.

Involve the reader fast with a dramatic scene.

Forward the plot if you don’t know how to star.

Follow to stay tuned on my next writing on writing 101.

Writing 101

How to structure a plot
How to develop a character
How to write a scene

Helping each other write better.

Writing 101: How to Write an Outline and First Lines was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.